Conservative spring conference: David Cameron claims - I am the hacking victims' friend

Prime Minister tells activists that mutterings about his leadership are merely background noise, but 'IoS' poll reveals support for Ukip has soared to 17 per cent

David Cameron insisted yesterday he was "a friend of the victims" of phone hacking as he attempted to heal a damaging rift in the coalition ahead of a decisive vote tomorrow on Lord Leveson's proposals for press regulation.

The Prime Minister insisted that "real progress" had been made between the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Labour over a new press regulator, even suggesting the major sticking point – enshrining the regime in law – was no longer the "big issue of principle" that a full-blown "Leveson law" would represent.

His calm words came amid frantic calls from his closest aides at No 10 to Tory MPs who are considering rebelling against the PM and backing Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg's proposals, which would include underpinning the regulator in statute, in tomorrow's Commons vote.

Mr Cameron, who is also expected to make personal calls to rebels, said the parties were in a "much better place" now after he pulled the plug on cross-party talks on Thursday amid claims the Labour leader was attempting to tack on further amendments to toughen up any regulator.

Speaking at Millwall Rugby Club in east London, where he was highlighting £150m extra for school sport, he added: "The other two parties are now in favour of a royal charter. They've dropped many of their previous unworkable demands. They don't want to have some Leveson law, which I think would have been bad for our country – that's good news."

Asked whether he fears his public image is damaged by his links to media barons such as Rupert Murdoch, Mr Cameron said: "Not at all, because I'm the friend of the victims, who want a deal in place.

"All that's left on the table is an enshrinement clause. I don't think it's needed but this is not the big issue of principle that a Leveson law would have been."

Rival plans for a royal charter establishing an independent self-regulatory body in the wake of Lord Justice Leveson's report will be put to a Commons vote tomorrow evening. Up to 20 Tories, led by George Eustice, could rebel. MPs will vote on a government motion in favour of a new regulator underpinned by royal charter, and on the Labour-Liberal Democrat amendment, which would enshrine the regulator in law.

Yet the Government's position over the statutory protection of its royal charter appears substantially to have shifted since the beginning of the year. The Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, told the BBC last week that any "statutory underpinning" of the charter had "never been on the table". Her comments ignore the fact that Oliver Letwin, a minister at the Cabinet Office, had government specialists draw up a detailed draft Bill earlier this year which described how legislation would be the foundation of the charter. Despite claiming that there was "no need for statutory underpinning" and that the "results" Lord Justice Leveson had called for could be achieved without legal enforcement, Ms Miller herself had discussions on the contents and impact of Mr Letwin's work.

The Letwin draft detailed issues such as the framework of recognition for the royal charter, the interpretation of terms such as "publisher" and "regulator", and what constituted "news-related material". Mr Letwin sent his draft to cabinet colleagues, lawyers and MPs saying he "looked forward to discussions" on the proposed law. Copies of the Letwin draft were sent to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and it would be almost impossible for Ms Miller not to have seen them.

Mr Cameron's political difficulties over Leveson multiplied last night after representatives of the victims angrily dismissed Mr Cameron's "insulting" claims that he was their friend. Brian Cathcart, of the campaign group Hacked Off, said the victims of press abuse believed the Prime Minister had repeatedly betrayed them.

He added: "Mr Cameron promised that the test of what politicians did would be what families such as the Dowlers and the McCanns felt, but he has ignored them. Instead he has had numerous meetings with newspaper editors and proprietors."

Mr Cameron needs to win the Leveson showdown not only for coalition unity but to reassert his authority over his leadership. Addressing his spring conference in London yesterday, the Prime Minister dismissed mutterings about his future as "background noise".

The PM said: "Anyone who thought it was going to be easy – they're wrong. Anyone who thinks it's going to get easier – they're wrong too. But let's remember – above all the background noise – what this is all about: The national interest: first, last, always. This is a battle for Britain's future we are engaged in."

But a poll for The Independent on Sunday published today will heighten alarm among Tory ranks as it puts Ukip at its highest-ever rating, on 17 per cent. The surge in support follows Ukip's second place ahead of the Tories in the Eastleigh by-election, which triggered dismay inside the party. Labour are up one on 37 per cent, nine points clear of the Tories, who are down three on 28 per cent, while the Lib Dems are up one on 9 per cent. The poll would hand Labour a 102-seat majority.

Conservative MPs are concerned that the local elections, mainly battles in Tory county councils, will see hundreds of councillors kicked out because they are fighting from the high watermark of 2009. One MP said: "We lost Eastleigh because the Lib Dems had so many councillors there. If we lose councillors in shires across England in May, MPs are going to start panicking that this will translate into seats lost in 2015."

At a ConservativeHome Victory 2015 rally a week earlier, the Home Secretary, Theresa May, positioned herself as the front-runner to succeed Mr Cameron by calling on the party to govern for the whole country. The intervention sparked outrage from cabinet colleagues, and Mr Cameron himself referred to leadership jockeying as "rubbish". Speaking to the spring forum yesterday, Mrs May stuck to her home affairs brief, although she opened the address with a rallying call to the party to defeat Labour in the local elections on 2 May.

With senior Tories concerned about their futures, Boris Johnson has emerged as a source of support for the Prime Minister. He has told friends that he believes Mr Cameron can win the 2015 election outright, based on an upsurge in economic growth which the Mayor is already witnessing in London, say sources. Yet some observers pointed out that it is in Mr Johnson's interests to talk up the Prime Minister's hopes of winning the election because the Mayor does not want to see a leadership election take place before 2015, when he is tied to his four-year term until 2016.

Tomorrow's vote: What is at stake?

Is Parliament finally deciding on the recommendations of the Leveson report?

Yes and no. Politicians have created their own arguments. But there isn't a simple divide that's for or against the report's findings.

So what's different from Leveson, because how the press is regulated is surely still the issue?

Sir Brian Leveson said a beefed-up self-regulatory system that was backed by law – a statute, in other words – was necessary. All parties agree that tougher regulation is required, but the question of whether "statutory underpinning" should be brought in is a source of dissension. David Cameron and many in the newspaper industry think a royal charter, without a legal foundation, will prove adequate. Others think legal back-up is needed.

"Statutory underpinning" sounds like something you need to keep a building from falling down.

That's a good analogy. The victims of the press's worst behaviour want something more than the industry being allowed to continue governing its own house.

Does the Prime Minister oppose this?

Not exactly, but his position has shifted from the period when he set up the Leveson Inquiry in 2011. He now argues that it would "cross the Rubicon" if there were state regulation of newspapers. Historic freedom of the press and all that. Crucially, a new issue of what is practical has suddenly emerged. The Prime Minister claims publications could refuse to sign up to a self-regulation system that had a statutory footing, with the issue of the European Court suddenly on the horizon.

So what trick is No 10 proposing?

The PM wants to establish a verification body under a royal charter, which apparently does not require parliamentary legislation, although legal work on a draft Bill had been done.

So that's what tomorrow's vote in Commons is on: royal charter that's either with or without big stick?

It's a bit more complex than that. There are incentives and punishments for those taking part, and those outside the charter's tent.

Where do Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg stand?

Apparently side by side, which is doing the coalition no good at all.

James Cusick

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